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Facebook founder/CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks to an audience at the screening of Jose Antonio Vargas' documentary film, "Documented," Monday, Aug. 5, 2013 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. (D. Ross Cameron/Bay Area News Group)

SAN FRANCISCO -- Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made a high-profile case for immigration reform Monday night, speaking publicly for the first time on an issue he has worked on behind the scenes for months.

The 29-year-old tech titan described his and Silicon Valley's immigration advocacy as more than a self-interested hunt for foreign tech workers -- something, instead, that is rooted in a broader ethos to "do what's right." Among his causes is a pathway to citizenship for the nation's roughly 11 million immigrants here illegally.

"This is something we believe is really important for the future of our country," Zuckerberg told the more than 600 people who crowded the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in downtown San Francisco.

Inspired in part by immigrant middle-school students he met while volunteering in East Menlo Park, Zuckerberg jumped into Beltway politics this spring with FWD.us, a lobbying group he launched with his former Harvard roommate Joe Green.

Green and Zuckerberg spoke briefly Monday before the Bay Area's debut screening of "Documented," an autobiographical documentary by activist and journalist Jose Antonio Vargas.

"When Mark and Joe Green told me they were starting FWD.us they made it clear it wasn't going to just be about H-1B visas and engineers," Vargas said in an interview Monday, referring to the temporary work visas that Facebook and other technology companies use to recruit skilled foreign workers.

Vargas became a prominent face of the immigrant rights movement when the graduate of Mountain View High School and San Francisco State University and Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter came out as an "undocumented immigrant" in a 2011 essay, stunning many of his friends and colleagues. His new movie explores his relationship with his mother, who sent him from the Philippines to the United States as a child and has not seen him in two decades.

It also documents his transition into advocacy, beginning with the moment, before his public outing, when he told a Mountain View classroom about his status.

"We serve you food at Chipotle, we mow your lawn," Vargas told the visibly surprised high school students, as he nervously twisted his pen.

Vargas met Zuckerberg and Green while profiling the Facebook executive for The New Yorker magazine. Months later, when Vargas unveiled his immigration status, Green sent him an email asking: "How can I help?"

While "it's very easy to be cynical about this issue," Vargas said he believes Zuckerberg's interest in immigration reform goes beyond his company's bottom line.

"The issue is bigger than engineers and the tech community," Vargas said. "Where would Silicon Valley be without day workers, without gardeners, without undocumented students? They know that."

Among the luminaries in Monday's audience were House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, musician MC Hammer, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, NFL Hall-of-Famer Joe Montana and Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. Mingling with the celebrities and tech executives were South Bay day laborers and college students brought to the country illegally as children.

The growing collaboration between Silicon Valley leaders and immigrant activists is a "marriage of unlikely allies" that bodes well for the passage of reform, Vargas said.

But the event comes as Congress increasingly appears stalled on immigration legislation. The Senate passed a sweeping bill in June, but the House of Representatives has been unable to find consensus and just entered a monthlong summer recess.

Zuckerberg and his lobby group waited too long to invite community support and alienated many early Silicon Valley supporters with an arrogant approach, said Vivek Wadhwa, a Stanford Law School fellow and longtime advocate for high-skilled immigration who attended the movie screening Monday night.

"It's something they should have done when they first launched the group," Wadhwa said of Monday's public event. "Now they're trying to win people over."

In an attempt to help support Republicans supportive of immigration reform, Zuckerberg's group in the spring bought TV advertisements backing conservative lawmakers and endorsing the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline project. Those tactics annoyed environmentalist-minded backers such as Elon Musk, founder of Tesla Motors, who dropped out of the group.

Wadhwa added that he thinks "Zuckerberg really does believe in the cause. I think it's genuine," and said he was glad that he was making his case for reform more public.

Contact Matt O'Brien at 510-208-6429. Follow him at Twitter.com/Mattoyeah.